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Planners are the Sprawl Creators

Not all planners are fully to blame for creating sprawl, after all, some of them are only doing their jobs – following the guidelines set by their archaic zoning code, general plan, and design guidelines (if there are any). Many planners realize what they are creating is sprawl, but because of political will, are unable to change the mindset of elected officials or citizens to get away from the “quickest, cheapest” developments. And some planners do stand up for sustainable development, and in the end, move on to more walkable places.

Ultimately, no one person or group of people is responsible for creating something people are unhappy with in the beginning – in most cases they would lose their positions. Rather, it is generally the lack of education on the consequences of their decisions. Even people who are educated on walkablility and smart growth issues create sprawl. You might ask how do you define sprawl? Well, I define sprawl as an un-walkable place. I think this can effectively sum up what everyone in the world thinks of when they try to visualize sprawl. And keep it mind, just adding sidewalks does not make a place walkable (for more info on what defines a walkable place, visit here.) So how are these decision makers creating sprawl when they think they are actually combating sprawl? There are numerous examples. A couple of not-so-obvious examples include adding a lane of capacity on ANY roadway, and having large lots to preserve open space. I will go a little more in depth on these topics in future articles.

But, wait. Is it not the developers who are the greatest contributors to sprawl? Planning Livable Communities writes that home builders in New Jersey say that they try to build sustainable and walkable neighborhoods, but that zoning regulations prevent it from happening, at least in a timely and cost-effective manner.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about this. I do tend to agree with developers who argue that they are handcuffed to building a certain way. However, I think that if developers were really interested in creating quality development, that they would work with planners and other community staff members to come up with a plan that satisfies as many interests as possible. Many times developers just build their products to maximize profits, and end up creating environments with no pedestrian or bicycling connectivity. And that is the central point of smart growth when it comes down to it.

So who is to blame for the mess we have created? Well, take a look in the mirror. We are all guilty of assisting sprawl in some way, not just urban planners.

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  • Mike LaMere August 26, 2005, 1:29 pm

    Great article – I think it is time for planners to take some responsibility for the mess they enable, if not create themselves. However it could all be straightened out with my City Zoning Amulet !

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